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Cavaliers push through adversity, pile up wins to jump in standings and into NBA title contention

CLEVELAND (AP) — Donovan Mitchell surveyed the crowd surrounding him like he was dissecting a trapping defense.

Backed up against a wall inside the locker room Monday night following the Cavaliers' sixth straight win, a 136-110 rout of the Sacramento Kings, the All-Star guard couldn't help but notice the growing number of media members hanging around him and his teammates lately.

“It's crazy," Mitchell said. “No disrespect to a lot of you, but a lot of y’all weren't here when we were down and out.”

The Cavs have flipped the script on a season that seemed destined for failure.

Cleveland has gone an NBA-best 19-4 since Dec. 16, the unexpected surge beginning one day after the team announced that starting point guard Darius Garland (broken jaw) and forward Evan Mobley (knee surgery) — two of its core players — would be out indefinitely with injuries that sidelined them for six weeks.

Everything since has changed in and around the Cavs.

The rumblings about coach J.B. Bickerstaff being fired have quieted, replaced by discussion about his Coach of the Year candidacy. The banter around Mitchell's long-term future in Cleveland has given way to the here and now, and whether this version of the Cavs, playing at a level not seen since LeBron James was around, are legit title contenders in 2024.

It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. But not to everyone.

The Cavs have always believed their talent matches up with the league's best teams, that it's just taken a little longer for them to untap it.

What's happened is that Cleveland has become a more dynamic, deeper team than anticipated.

“Everybody’s risen to the occasion when their number has been called,” said Mitchell, who is building an MVP case with his best all-around season. “For us, we’ve seen it in training camp. We saw it during summer workouts. The biggest thing that was just trying to find it together as a group.”

By going 14-1 since Jan. 3, Cleveland, which plays its next three on the road starting in Washington on Wednesday, has jumped ahead of Milwaukee for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference.

It's been a rapid and remarkable rise for a team that still will have to atone for last year's playoff failure (a pummeling in the first round by the New York Knicks) at some point. But that's down the road.

“We figured each other out, first and foremost, as we got some reps together,” Bickerstaff said before his team made 23 3-pointers and outraced a high-tempo Sacramento squad. “There’s a clear picture of what it looks like, what we do well. When we play Cavs hoops, you know what that looks like now and guys can kind of fill in and step into their role.”

Strangely, it took Garland and Mobley getting hurt for the Cavs to discover their offensive identity.

Without them and their combined 36 points per game, Garland's playmaking or Mobley as dual-threat, ball movement became imperative and improved. Also, like much of the league, the Cavs, who added shooters Max Strus and Georges Niang in the offseason, are attempting more 3-pointers (37 per game) and making more (13.4).

And, because his team was short-handed, Bickerstaff, who has been criticized in the past for his rotations, had to play reserves like Craig Porter Jr. and Sam Merrill, who have both flourished to earn more trust and time.

While his rotation will tighten in the postseason, Bickerstaff will grudgingly expand it for now.

“I don’t like 10," he said. “I like nine, but we got 10 guys that have earned it.”

As the wins have piled up — Cleveland's only loss since Jan. 1 was by 10 at Milwaukee — the Cavs have crept into the championship conversation and Bickerstaff is drawing praise.

“J.B. doesn’t get enough credit," Kings coach Mike Brown said. "They had some adversity early on, which I always think is great. Because if you can fight through it or get through it with your group, that means you have a legitimate chance. And they’re showing everyone they’re legit and they can overcome anything that’s in front of them.”

Of course, it helps to have Mitchell leading the way.

The 27-year-old has been everything the Cavs could have hoped for when they traded for him in September 2022. He's averaging 28.2 points with career highs in assists (6.4), rebounds (5.4), and steals (1.9), and Mitchell seems to come up with a big play whenever needed.

On Monday, he tossed the ball off the backboard to himself for a dunk.

While he's encouraged by Cleveland's ascent, Mitchell isn't making too much of it just yet.

“It’s good, but this is February,” he said. "We just want to continue to play the way we’ve been playing. The biggest thing is just playing as a group, man. Just staying here and being cohesive as a group.

“This is great. Playing great basketball, but my biggest thing and our biggest thing is how do we keep going? How do we get better?"

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